New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday that prison officials screwed up by allowing Brenton Tarrant, the man accused of the country’s worst act of terrorism, to send a letter to an admirer, expressing his hateful beliefs.
The six-page handwritten letter — addressed to “Alan” in Russia — was posted to 4chan, a message board popular with white supremacists, this week.
Many commenters expressed skepticism that the letter was genuine, but on Wednesday, New Zealand’s Corrections Department, which oversees the nation’s prisons, admitted that the letter “should have been withheld.”
Speaking to reporters at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, Ardern said the incident “just should not have happened.”
“I think every New Zealander would have an expectation that this individual should not be able to share his hateful message from behind bars,” she said.
“This is an offender who has a very specific goal in mind, in terms of sharing his propaganda, so we should have been prepared for that.”
Ardern has declared her intention to take all necessary steps to deny Tarrant, accused of murdering 51 people at two Christchurch mosques in March, of a platform to spread his hateful ideology, to the extent of pledging she will never speak his name. The circulation of the letter online — on a forum associated with white supremacists, no less — represents an embarrassing blunder for her government, particularly in the aftermath of recent shootings in which the suspects have cited the Christchurch terror attacks as inspiration.
Since the massacre, at least three suspected far-right gunmen have cited Tarrant as an inspiration for their actions: at a synagogue in Poway, California in April; a Walmart in El Paso, Texas earlier this month; and most recently a mosque in Baerum, Norway last Saturday. Much of Tarrant’s letter, dated July 4, focused on his memories of a 2015 trip to Russia. He thanked his correspondent for postage stamps he had sent, saying they were the only piece of color in his gray cell, and said he could not “go into any great detail about regrets or feelings as the guards will confiscate my letter if I do.” Despite this, the letter ended with a statement that could be read as inciting his supporters to violence.
The Corrections Department said it was permitted to withhold prisoners’ mail in a limited range of circumstances, and that, on review, the letter in question should have been seized.
“We have made changes to the management of this prisoner’s mail to ensure that our robust processes are as effective as we need them to be,” said the statement. Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said that Tarrant should not have been able to send the letter, but suggested a review of Corrections laws may be necessary to tighten and clarify guidelines in order to prevent a similar letter from being posted from a New Zealand prison.
“We have never had to manage a prisoner like this before — and I have asked questions around whether our laws are now fit for purpose and asked for advice on what changes we may now need to make,” Davis said.
Before the shootings, Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, posted a 74-page white supremacist screed on the website 8chan, in which he outlined his racist and violent views. Authorities in New Zealand and Australia swiftly moved to outlaw possession or distribution of the document, and banned video from a Facebook livestream of the massacre. Tarrant has pleaded not guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and a charge of terrorism, and is due to stand trial in May.
Cover: New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talks to the media on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Wellington, New Zealand. Ardern spoke about the El Paso massacre, the latest attack in which the gunman appears to have praised the March shootings in Christchurch, where an Australian white supremacist is charged with killing 51 worshippers at two mosques. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)